Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Interesting Uses of English in France

One thing I've discovered since coming to a country where I have only a slight grip on the language is that many people don't like to go outside of bounds of their linguistic competence. You see this reflected in the types of vacations that are advertised by travel agents in Strasbourg -- to L'ile de Réunion, Algérie, Tunisie, Senegal, Québec, etc. What these places all have in common is that people speak French there. I can understand wanting to travel to a place where the language isn't a barrier, though -- it's a big investment, and most people want to feel comfortable on their vacation.

Within the country, the French also try to keep a tight grip on their language, not often allowing foreign words in. Sometimes, however, words sneak in and become part of the language, whether they're welcome or not. Thus you have people wishing you "Bon Weekend!" on Friday, or you might go "faire le shopping" to buy your groceries or some new clothes (although it can still be called "faire les courses"). At some boulangeries (bakeries) you can buy a "sandwich americaine", conveniently stuffed with greasy pommes frites (French fries, to us.) At the patisserie (pastry shop) you can buy "les brownies", a dessert that must have made it into France so fast that they didn't have time to change the name to something more French.

What always makes me smile, though, is when the words in the other language don't quite make sense in the given context. Occasionally, proprietors will throw a word or two of another language into their shop names, possibly wanting to seem forward-thinking, hip or adventurous. Of course I can't really comment on the use of German or any other language, but the English ones usually catch my attention. Here are a few examples:

We came across this sign in Nice, where there are so many British tourists that the residents actually do speak more English than a lot of other places in France. With this store, however, I got the feeling that they just brainstormed a bunch of words that evoke a warm seaside vacation and threw them in a hat. Then they picked as many as they could and jammed them onto their sign.

I can understand why this business didn't make it (it's been closed since we moved here). I think this is an instance of people trying to be creative with a foreign language even though they may not understand all of the meanings of a word. I don't think this means that you can get actual rabbit pizza here -- although it wouldn't surprise me, since you can buy whole rabbit (lapin) at the grocery store. I'm sure they just meant that they make the pizzas fast, but as an anglophone and a person who doesn't make it a habit to consume rabbit regularly, the two concepts just don't belong together.

The word "sexy" is always guaranteed to catch people's attention. But a price? I don't really get it. (I know, I know, I fell for it. It caught my attention.)

They don't really mean that it's free, do they? I'll bet they're just teasing to get us monolingual English speakers in the door so they can make their sales pitch! (In French, of course!)

This one they got wrong, and right, in a punny sort of way. It's not the sort of general store we know from North American history, where you could buy everything from candy to farm implements. Instead this store sells military-looking clothing and accessories.

There are an extraordinary number of businesses in Strasbourg that offer to help you find work; we have at least three on our block alone. Many of them have English-sounding names, including the now politically incorrect (in North America, anyway) Manpower. In France, where every noun has a gender, the idea of neutering the language to avoid giving a name a masculine or feminine slant would be laughable.

And finally, I'm not sure that I would buy a package tour from a company that sells "norest" voyages. I think these are the ones with the lumpy beds, flashing neon lights outside your curtainless window, and the band in the bar below your room belting out endless renditions of La Bamba.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Saga of the Carte de Séjour

We got a letter in the mail late in February that sent shivers down my spine. It told us to present ourselves to the préfecture to renew our temporary residency permits. The real trouble was that they had sent the letter the day that our permits had expired, and now it was two days later. We were officially illegal aliens!

To understand how we had become such desperate fugitives from the law, we must return to last autumn, specifically mid-September, 2007. As required, we had presented ourselves at the préfecture within two months of arriving in France. The préfecture is a huge office where all sorts of mind-numbing bureaucratic processes -- like getting a driver's licence, or applying for a passport or residency permit -- take place. This is the place where you take a ticket to get in line to speak to someone where they direct you to take another ticket to speak to someone else. And heaven help you if you've taken the wrong type of ticket! When we spoke to the first person we got a list of about 15 documents (plus two copies of each) that we had to provide. These include some of the 72 (or so) pages of documents that we prepared when we applied for the long-stay visa back in Canada (which they graciously warn you to bring with you), but also some new ones that we never needed we knew. It was also at this time that we were informed we had to go see a doctor, but we managed to put it out of our heads because seeing a doctor in France was about the last thing we wanted to do!

The saga continued as we arrived home from Germany in late November, when we found two letters waiting in our mailbox. The first was a note from the Ministry of Foreigners telling us that we owed 275€ each (about $800 CAD total). The second was a letter that directed us to what looked like two separate medical appointments on the same day. Because we had been trapped in Germany during the train strike, we had missed the appointments (oh, darn!) The letter that said we owed money was interesting, mostly due to the manner in which we were to pay. (This took a very long time to decipher, because we really couldn't believe it!) At the bottom of the letter was a representation of five stamps each worth 55€. We were both supposed to buy the five stamps (available at certain stores), and then lick them and paste them to the bottom of the letter, which was then to be returned to the préfecture. This is just about the oddest way I have ever seen to pay for something!

Not seeing any other choice, we gritted our teeth, bit the bullet, (add whatever other metaphor you can come up with for doing something you don't really want to do) and took ourselves off to the first medical appointment, where we were directed to strip from the waist up, jammed against a very chilly plate, and then escorted out the door with our freshly exposed chest x-rays in hand. This was a bit of a shock for both of us, considering we had no idea what kind of office we were in when we first arrived! By contrast, the actual doctor's appointment was a breeze (when they were finally able to reschedule us for mid-January, after we'd missed the first appointment). We had a pleasant chat with a nice gentleman who spoke very good English and told us that many people who try to come to France have tuberculosis, which must be treated before they can receive a residency permit. When we left the office, he told us that we could just wait for another letter from the préfecture before we had to do anything more about our residency status.

So on this warm February day, not at all used to being illegal aliens, we hied ourselves off to the préfecture, leaving the kids standing in our dust at the tram station where we had all been waiting to go for a family outing. (Mark had met us at the tram station and just happened to check the mail before he left the apartment). When we arrived at the préfecture, we were disappointed to find out that the tax man had finally caught up with us. The only thing standing between us and our permanent residency cards was the little matter of the 550€. Although we had known about the fee for months, we had always hoped to avoid paying it through some tangle of bureaucracy. But pay for it we did, our only consolation being that we didn't have to lick the stamps. In return, we received our shiny new permanent Cartes de Séjour (good until September 12, 2008, tourist use only). And so ended our two-day brush on the seamier side of life, most of which we sailed through quite comfortably and unknowingly.

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Friday, March 7, 2008

Visiting in Goxwiller

A few weeks ago we made a trip to Goxwiller to see our friends Rachel and Eric. We first met them and their two girls on a shuttle bus at the Paris airport last August while transferring to our Strasbourg-bound plane. Rachel spotted the Canadian flag luggage tag hanging from my backpack and asked us where we were from. We had a lively discussion with them (in English) and found out that they had just come back from a fairly long holiday in Canada -- Manitoba, no less! (Mark's family lives there). During the conversation Rachel gave me a business card that advertised their gîte (vacation rental home), and asked us to call them, which we promised to do. We contacted them a few times in November and December, but with all the travel that we were doing, it was hard to plan a visit. Finally, on a warm winter weekend in February, it all came together.
We couldn't get good train connections to Goxwiller and back on a Sunday, so instead we took the train to Gertwiller and then walked over. The weather was absolutely gorgeous; the sun was beating down from a cloudless blue sky, and it felt at least 20 C -- so hot that Mark and I were down to our T-shirts by the middle of the journey. We had a leisurely two-kilometre walk on mostly paved paths and narrow back roads through the now-dormant grapevines. On our way we met numerous families, couples and groups out for a stroll, and we called out a friendly "Bonjour!" to every one.

At Rachel and Eric's house we were treated to Gewurztraminer, a sweeter wine which is produced in this region and is often offered as an aperitif; kugelhopf (an Alsatian sweet bread); and pain d'épice (gingerbread). The kids graciously accepted a drink of syrop de pêche-litchi (fruit syrup) mixed with water, a very common offering for children in France.

The kids stayed for part of the visiting, then left to explore the fields behind the village and look for the pet rabbit. As the adults talked, we found to our surprise that Rachel and Eric had been visiting friends in Portage La Prairie in August and had even been out to Delta Beach, a well-known recreation area north of Portage. Since we had also been visiting with Mark's parents in Portage at the same time, including a trip to Delta Beach, we speculated that we had possibly passed each other on the street or path without knowing! Times like this remind us what a small world we live in.

On our way back to the tiny train station in Goxwiller (really just a covered bench), Rachel and Eric showed us a baker's house that had been built in the 17th century. It has been restored as part of a community project which entailed learning about the old construction techniques. Members of the community gather there once a month to cook a traditional meal in the baker's oven and take part in cultural activities.

With the combination of the beautiful weather and the opportunity to visit with Rachel and Eric again, we all had a wonderful afternoon. Meghan especially enjoyed the trip because it allowed her to get out in the country again, something she has been missing since we left our house on the lake. I felt very privileged to be sitting in the back yard of friends in the middle of Alsace on a sunny winter day, taking part in a conversation that slipped back and forth between English and French. We hope to see them again soon, and we might take Eric up on his offer to drive us to some of the nearby sights that are difficult to get to on foot. Eric says he enjoys driving in Rome (where the drivers are crazy!), so it should be an exciting ride!

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